Alum Author: Age Of Pandemics (1817-1920): How they shaped India and the World – Dr. Chinmay Tumbe, FPM 2012
History is known to be a great teacher and it is often said that one can find solutions for most situations taking a cue from the past. Dr. Chinmay Tumbe, an absolute history buff found many similarities of instances that had their reflections in the past. Whether it was on the subject of migration or the current pandemic. It has all happened before and knowing more about it will help us on the journey ahead.
Dr. Chinmay is currently working at IIM Ahmedabad as an Associate Professor in the economics area. He is already working on his next book whose content will be as promising as his other books.
In this interview he talks about his book, the story behind and fond memories from his student days at the institute.
Please tell us something about yourself.
I love to laugh and learn. I love to play sports and played a lot while I was a doctoral student at IIMB and continue to do so now as faculty at IIMA. I read a lot, and our family has been successfully doing a “No TV, No Car” policy for years on end. Traveling is another passion and one which I miss deeply, during this pandemic. Reasonably terrible at singing.
Please tell us something about your book- Age of Pandemics (1817-1920): How they shaped India and the World.
It’s a book on cholera, plague, and influenza pandemics between 1817-1920 when India was the most affected country in all of them, losing 40 million lives, and yet a saga that has been curiously forgotten.
What motivated you to write on the subject?
My son asked me what do we know about past pandemics in India and I knew then, that a book was waiting to be written on this. My first book India Moving: A History of Migration took a decade to research and write, while this book took 10 months. I was possessed with this idea that it has to come out in 2020, the year of the pandemic and so worked hard towards it. Since I do a lot of work on economic and demographic history, I knew the relevant literature and historical mortality statistics and thought I was well placed to write it.
What kind of research went into it? How cumbersome was it to collect relevant data?
There’s a chart in my 2012 IIMB doctoral thesis that mentions the 1918 influenza pandemic effect on India’s population. Working on migration history, I was exposed to aspects of pandemic history. I had to build a mortality statistical database from 1870-1940, go through countless memoirs and reports and even digitize and analyze the burial records of Kolkata’s South Park Street Cemetery for the early 19th century.
In your opinion, what is the difference between past epidemics and the current- Covid 19? And are handling this crisis any different?
Life expectancy rates at birth back then was around 25 years in India; today it is around 70. So we are clearly better off on average. But pandemics come in waves and don’t get over in a few months. Like in the past, there was a lot of premature celebration earlier this year over Covid being ‘defeated’. While we have better data today on some aspects, I feel back then, on some aspects, the data was released timelier than now. And of course, we are sitting on record high foodgrain stocks today which means famines and epidemics-undernutrition link is weaker today than in the past.
What changes can we bring out to prepare ourselves for unseen circumstances?
As I write in my book, the two key traits required in pandemic management are patience and humility. Patience to not declare victory. And humility that there is a lot about the virus that we don’t know. For instance, many believed in some kind of natural immunity Indians had because of lower death rates in 2020 than in the US, which is clearly not the case, as 2021 shows. Of course, we need better planning and ramping up of critical medical resources.
Can you please tell us about your association with Lancet Covid Task Force? And how is it contributing?
This is an independent inter-disciplinary body that provides inputs to whoever is interested in listening. I am there mainly for my work on migration because we saw the migration crisis in 2020, which I think was totally avoidable with better planning. It’s an interesting space because everyone gets to learn from each other and some of the leading public health professionals in India are on it.
How has IIMB been a part of your writing journey?
I had a fantastic four years at IIMB, with great batchmates, staff and faculty. My first research papers were written there as a doctoral student. The fact that a great writer like K R Usha (who is extremely modest about her accomplishments and novels) edits the IIMB review was and is deeply inspiring. My supervisor, Rupa Chanda, writes regularly in the newspapers apart from academic journals which is very important for the dissemination of ideas. I was thus exposed to different literary forms and thus write in different forms. Do check out my long essay on Dr. Kamla Chowdhry, the less-known founding member of IIMA on FiftyTwo.in, a piece I am very proud of.
A favourite quote.
“Be the change you want to see in the world”, from Mohandas Gandhi I think (You can’t miss it when you land in Mumbai domestic airport!).
“Don’t Panic” is from Douglas Adam’s HitchHiker series. In fact, the title of an elective I teach at IIMA is called the HitchHikers’ Guide to Business and Economies Across Five Centuries and has the words “Don’t Panic’ on the cover of the course material!